Award winning Beer Writer Adrian Tierney-Jones explores the Central European 'Lagerlands' in a series of Euroboozer blogs: Part #3...
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A few years ago I spent a sleepy Sunday lunchtime in the small town of Dobřany, a few kilometres southwest of Pilsen. I was right in the midst of Bohemian beer country, deeply embedded in the lager lands of central Europe. The brewery I was visiting was called Pivovar Modrá Hvězda, a compact outfit based in a hotel opposite the town square. At the bar, close to where a redundant copper-faced brew-kit stood on display, I asked for a large glass of the brewery’s 12˚ světlý ležák (light or pale lager). It was a superlative beer with sweet toasted grain, a slight pepperiness and delicate Saaz-derived floral notes all vying for attention on the nose. The palate had a hint of fruit pastilles, more of that featherweight sweetness and a long lasting dry and bitter finish.
A light bulb flashed on in my head and I asked the brewmaster, who was also at the bar, if what I was drinking was really a Pilsner, especially bearing in mind the closeness of the historical brewery (I didn’t know then that the brewmaster had worked there until 2003). The answer came back. ‘All these beers would be adjudged to be a Pilsner style, because of the way they are made.’ I guess he meant yes, but you can hunt high and low through the brewing world of Czechia and it’s only the mighty Pilsner Urquell that can call its beer Pilsner.
At the time I was intrigued by this avoidance of the word Pilsner and wondered if it was either some copyright issue or politeness on the behalf of the country’s brewers, for after all in the rest of the world there are plenty of Pilsners, many of which have very little relationship with the original. This conundrum over the use of the word Pilsner at the time motivated me to contact Josef Tolar, formerly brewmaster at Budweiser Budvar. So I emailed him asking how he would define a Pilsner and was it the same as světlý ležák? His reply was short and succinct: ‘the Pilsner style is really světlý ležák in the Czech Republic.’ I have seen Budvar’s bottle labels in their home country bearing the legend světlý ležák, so make of that what you will.
I also went to the source and asked Kamil Růžek, Senior Trade Brewmaster at Pilsner Urquell, why there was this anomaly in the naming of Czech beers.
‘The beer name “Pilsner Urquell” literally means Pilsner from the original source,’ he told me. ‘That is why it would sound weird here in Czechia if another lager was called the same or similar. A trademark was not registered just after the first batch but was done so many years later and this is the reason why you can nowadays find many Pilsners, Pils, Pilseners, etc outside Czechia.’
The rudest man in Bavaria
It might be worthwhile at this moment to pause a little and briefly consider how Pilsner became the beer that girdled the world. As any beer lover should know, what would become Pilsner Urquell was first produced by Bavarian brewmaster Josef Groll in 1842, who has gone down in history as a truculent type of chap (his father called him ‘the rudest man in Bavaria’). A sort of hired gun of the lauter tun, he fetched up in Pilsen after the call went out from the city’s burghers for a decent brewer; they were sick and tired of their beer being the laughing stock of Bohemia. Prior to Groll’s arrival the local beers were top-fermenting, but the use of a Munich yeast plus lightly cured Moravian barley malt and Saaz hops changed history, presenting the world with a light golden beer that delighted the palates of Groll’s employers (as well as the much-suffering and thirsty locals). The soft water also played its part, as it does in so many Czech breweries. I once tasted the water used for brewing at Budvar, taken straight from one of the two brick-built wells at the site of the brewery. It was clear and limpid in the glass and ghostlike on the palate, hardly there, an ideal partnership with which the malt and hops could work their magic and form their shapes.
This was obviously a dynamic time in beer history as Pilsner was part of the mighty trio of beer styles that emerged out of Central Europe in the early years of the 1840s, with Bavarian Märzen and Vienna Lager also appearing. There might have been a link through friendship and possibly shared ideas on the part of the two initiators of the latter two beer styles, Gabriel Sedlmayr the Younger and Anton Dreher, but Groll, it seems, was working on his own (after all, he doesn’t seem the most clubbable of men).
In the snappily titled book Pilsner Beer in the light of practice and science (1930), Professor Edward Jalowtz speculated whether the Bavarian brewmaster really knew what he was doing. Perhaps, writes the author, it was just pure chance that he came up with his gorgeous beer: ‘the burghers had planned to build a new brewery to produce beer in the “Bavarian way” and a lucky chance brought a pleasant surprise for all, a new type of beer not known to anybody then.’
For a more contemporary opinion I went back to Kamil Růžek, whose views seem to chime with those of Edward Jalowtz.
‘I wish we had more details from that important period about his first beers, experiments, etc,’ he told me. ‘The truth is that the local ingredients, like the source of soft water here in Pilsen, the aromatic Saaz hops or the pale malt that was kilned, all indirectly helped him to think in a different way about his beer to be brewed in the new brewery. I also expect his Bavarian brewing skills and mainly the new type of yeast here in Pilsen did a half of the miracle and he came up with a pretty different beer compared to those widely available in this region.’
However, a further viewpoint came from Jakub Hájek, who is brewmaster of Kutná Hora brewery in the city of the same name. Even though he professes to be no expert in beer history, he doesn’t know if Groll’s achievement was the result of a mistake or just simply his intentions.
‘Personally I think that it was combination of a few key things,’ he says. ‘Groll worked in a very modern, newly built brewery with great technology for the time. It also had a very good source of clean water and quality raw materials. In those times Pilsen brewery suddenly started to sell well stabilised and high quality bottom-fermented beer with little haze and a good unchanging taste which naturally could survive longer for exports and so on. There is no wonder that sales skyrocketed considering there were still some breweries which brewed white beers (using wheat or other cereals, and were top-fermented) with old technology and almost no knowledge about basic measurements, hygiene or simple handling of yeast. This resulted in very hazy and often spoiled beer. So for me it was not about the original taste but rather about the quality of the succeeding brewers of Pilsner Urquell in those times which made the beer famous worldwide. Of course the profile of beer was important too but I feel like the quality was the source of success which led to copycat beers in other breweries in following years.’
Whatever the way Groll brought the beer to life, its fame then spread like a conquering army throughout Europe and then the world. The result was a rash of breweries boasting the name Pilsner, which led to the trademark Pilsner Beer being registered in 1859. However, two other breweries in Pilsen were set up and also started to use the word Pilsner; the result was Pilsner Urquell being registered in 1898 (beer from the original source).
If, as is often said, porter was the first beer of the industrial age, you could argue that Pilsner was the first beer to really go global (IPA was more of a phenomena of the British Empire). Cross from Bohemia into Bavaria and the rest of Germany and you’ll be following in its tracks when offered a Pils or a Pilsener. It seems that German breweries noted the popularity of the Czech-style Pilsners and used their own brewing techniques to produce a beer slightly different from that brewed in Bohemia. There is even more variety further north on the Baltic coast, where the dry and bitter tones of Jever Pilsener will tantalise the palate. Get on the global grid and wherever you order a beer, whether on a beach in Mexico or a bar in Brisbane, a variation on the theme of Pilsner will be proffered. Chances are that some of the beers might have rice or corn in the mix, hop extracts as well, and, as for lagering or storing, what on earth is that (Pilsner Urquell is lagered for four-five weeks, while Kutná Hora’s 12˚ gets up to two months)? It is said that the Pilsner style (or derivations of) make up 90% of the beer sold in the world. However, the majority of them seem to have little to do with the beer that first emerged from Pilsen.
The essential nature of the decoction mash
If there is one thing that is a constant in Czech brewing, something which you can pinpoint and say, yes, this is what helps to produce such exemplary pale lagers, whether you call them Pilsen or not, it is the decoction mash. This is a process during the first stage of the brew that a Czech brewer once explained to me helped to give a gentle caramelisation to the beer. He then told me to consider the difference between a steak that had been fried and one that was boiled; he was comparing the effects of the decoction mash to the frying of the steak. Meanwhile, Pivovar Chodovar’s brewmaster Jiří Plevka once told me that it was historically carried out because of the poor quality of the malt, which was not the case today though. ‘The infusion mash is better for energy and takes less time,’ he continued, referring to the process where hot liquor is blended with malts to create a mash that only has one rest, ‘but I believe that double decoction produces a more full-bodied beer.’
The actual process of the decoction mash involves taking part of it away from the main vessel and then boiling it elsewhere, while keeping the mothership mash at a consistent temperature. After a certain amount of time, the boiled mash is added back; sometimes this process can be carried out two or three times, which is called either a double or triple decoction. According to Kamil Růžek triple decoction is an essential part of brewing Pilsner Urquell, along with Pilsen’s soft water, fine aromatic Saaz hops and Moravian barley.
‘The uniqueness of the brewing process sits in the triple decoction with a direct flame heating on brewing kettles,’ he says, ‘in a longer but not deep bottom fermentation and maturation. It all results in a higher residual extract and a lower level of ABV in the final product, making it highly drinkable but still full-bodied. We use the triple decoction mash firstly because there is a historical reason as the first brewmaster implemented that process in the new brewery in 1842 and we simply want to keep the same process despite the huge demand of time, energy, money, etc. Then there is the technological aspect, which is the positive impact of the open flame heating of particular mashes on the beer colour that should be deep yellow/golden. From the consumer point of view the triple decoction delivers caramel tones to the beer taste profile and helps to round off the high bitterness of Pilsner Urquell.’
Some brewers in the Central European lager lands swear by this process, while many others now consider it unnecessary and a waste of time and energy, especially, as Jiří Plevka pointed out, well-modified malts are now available, as wasn’t always the case in the past. Using a decoction mash is also a sign that a Czech brewery is serious about its traditions and the methods of brewing that has made their pale lagers develop such a generous reputation. Kutná Hora’s Jakub Hájek is emphatic in the use of decoction mashing. ‘Sometimes other brewers say to me something like, “oh, it is only tradition, there is no any value in using decoction anymore”,’ he says. ‘I get their view, it is more energetically demanding and time consuming but it is what makes Czech beer different. Decoction is a key process and without it you would change the whole taste and aroma profile of Czech lager.’
Just over the border in Lower Austria, at Schremser brewery, owner and head brewer Karl Trojan is also a keen advocate of decoction mashing, which perhaps comes as no surprise when you discover that his great-great-grandfather, who brought the brewery in 1838, was from a small village in what is now Czechia.
‘Czech beers are very popular in the eastern part of Austria,’ he says, ‘and at Schremser we brew with the same type of water, because we have granite as well and therefore our water is low in calcium and magnesium, which then influence the colour and characteristic of our beers very much and we do a typical Czech double decoction and a cold fermentation. Czech people who visit us seem to like our Schremser beer styles very much.’
How malt adds depth to Czech beer
One other thing that helps to make Czech-style Pilsen so special is something that can be easily forgotten — the influence of the malt. In the English speaking and drinking world malt indicates a beer that is warm and befuddling in its sweet and cosy character. In Czech beer, the malt adds a depth and creates a canvas on which the spicy floral notes of Saaz can be splashed. Are we talking about the pointillist approach of Seurat or maybe it’s the warmer impressionistic swabs of colour from the French impressionists? It’s not bright but maybe it’s more redolent of the pastel colours that mark out so many Czech homes in towns and villages. If the use of hops in American beers is reflective of the USA’s brash and open approach to life, then maybe the subtlety sugary malt character of an eloquent světlýležák is a comparison of the Czech approach to life — subtle, confident andhappy with its lot.
Tasting the moment
Beer styles are a way of letting the beer drinker know what they are drinking. If you like stout then you will be disappointed if you receive a so-called stout that is golden in colour and smells of raspberries. The same goes for the Czech Pilsner style. You would looking at a beer that is 12˚ Plato (the Plato Gravity Scale being a measurement of the concentration of dissolved solids in a brewery wort), light to deep gold in colour, with a delicate interplay between grainy malt and light citrus on the nose, a full-bodied mouthfeel, easy drinkability, hop spice and grainy malt before a bittersweet and dry finish. Some of these beers would have an acceptable level of diacetyl on the nose and palate, but nothing too buttery, which Karl Trojan recalls was a feature of some of the original Pilsners he tried.
‘I remember that the Pilsner style was traditionally a little buttery, or it was… That has changed a lot. Now I would say that it has to be golden colour, with a distinctive but not aggressive bitterness and a "grassy" nose. There has to be good drinkability and a massive white head.’
I have heard many Czech brewers use the word drinkability when they discuss their own beers. Here’s Adam Matuška of Pivovar Matuška, for instance, on the essential nature of a Pilsner-style beer.
‘For me, what makes the beer style so good is the drinkability and purity of it,’ he says, ‘Pilsner-style beer is a kind of beer that should be drunk by litres. At the same time it should be pure, without citrus notes and “perfumes”. That’s why in the end it is a very complicated style and it is not easy to brew a pure and drinkable beer’.
Drinkability is also high on the agenda at Pivovar Cvikov, which is close to the German border, as Managing Director Viktor Tradlec explained to me. ‘A typical characteristic for the Pilsner-style beer is drinkability,’ he says, ‘due to its well-balanced bitterness, full bodied taste and typically served with solid foam.’ He also goes on to highlight the serve, another important aspect of the style. ‘The optimal temperature for it to be served is 6-7°C. To reach this it is important to provide proper equipment and well-trained staff.’
Maybe it’s time for a beer, so to really get to the heart of the matter, it helps to engage with a glass of Kutna Hora’s 12˚ světlý ležák. It gleams once poured, a golden smile from the Czech lands, a metaphysical message that tells the world of how beer runs through the soul of this country as sure as a river makes its way to the sea. Once the beer has been considered, let your senses be beguiled by the aromatics of Moravian malt sweetness and Saaz hop spice, an earthy spiciness that links you with the fertile lands of North Bohemia where this noble hop is grown. Now it is time to test the drinkability of this affable beer. It is a beer of which you drink deeply, a beer that continues with that assertive spiciness, plus a light sensation of citrus and a sweetness that is elegant in its affirmation. The finish trills with a crisp dryness in tandem with a winsome bittersweetness and yes the drinkability of this beer has been tested and not found wanting.
‘For me a Czech-style pilsner is a bottom fermented beer with a deep golden colour, rich and stable foam, clean malty taste, bread-like mouthfeel and higher but balanced bitterness and noble aroma of Saaz hops,’ says the beer’s maker Jakub Hájek, who then goes on to discuss the version of Pilsner that is produced over the border. ‘The main difference between Czech and German Pils from my point of view is a combination of various factors but generally I believe German Pils has a lower colour, lower body, less bitterness and more CO2.
‘For us to maintain high standards, we work with very good suppliers who provide high quality raw materials, and so it is essential to keep to the brewing routine and keep an overall focus on the stability and similarity of every process during brewing and fermentation. In other words I want every batch to be as similar as possible. Our job and main focus is to ensure the same quality and taste of beer over a long period of time.’
2022 saw the Pilsner-style beer celebrate 180 years of existence and even though debates continue on whether Josef Groll produced the beer on purpose or by accident, it remains a beer style that along with Märzen and Vienna Lager changed the world of lager. Will there be another epochal moment like this in Czech brewing? One can but hope, as Adam Matuška muses: ‘even though Groll was of German origin he was able to create a beer style that I am really proud of. My wish is that there will be another beer style born in the Czech Republic that will eventually become known all over the world, such as Pilsner did. It might be utopian but it would be amazing.’
In the next part of this series I will be majoring on Helles and other German Pils styles -
Kutna Hora Glass by the open fermentation tanks
Kutna Hora Glass and Brewery Sampling Vessel
Adrian Scribing How Wonderful Kutna Hora beers are
Viktor explaining to Adrian that we’re now locked in the lager cellars
Viktor & Guests admiring his open fermentation
Cvikov Lager Cellars
Adam at Matuska & his home made tank Side Pour Faucet